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A New Rotation

VCU's restored Hunton Hall is a sanctuary of modern and classical styles.

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Virginia Commonwealth University has an architectural Rip Van Winkle on its medical campus. Hunton Hall has been revived as the Hunton Student Center after being a sleeper for decades.

Although the stoic, Greek Doric temple-form structure (which was built in 1841 for First Baptist Church and acquired by the Medical College of Virginia in 1938) has sat prominently on East Broad Street longer than any other university building on this stretch, it was completely underappreciated until its recent renovation.

It hadn't helped Hunton's fortunes that it competed for attention with a number of other architectural jewels in the vicinity. These include Monumental Church (a reliquary where 72 people who perished in an 1811 theater fire are entombed); the over-the-top Egyptian Building; and West Hospital, a forceful but graceful art deco marvel that for more than half a century has added Gotham City gravitas to the downtown skyline.

In the 1970s the university wanted it demolished so that the high-rise next door, the yawningly bland Sanger Hall, could be expanded. But this didn't happen. Nationwide, preservationists cried out loudly and convincingly what a sacrilege it would be to destroy a prime building by Thomas U. Walter, the talented early American designer of such landmarks as the Capitol dome in Washington, D.C., and Norfolk City Hall (now the MacArthur Memorial).

Thirty years later, under the careful eye of Washington, D.C., architects Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, the interior, like the exterior, has been injected with new life.

In 1841, for Richmond's first Baptist congregation, architect Walter designed a powerful temple-front structure with six colossal Doric columns marching across the facade. Four of these posts are pilasters, and two are freestanding and fluted. The building's exterior is a testament to the power of classical proportions. Remarkably, this 19th-century building exudes the power and beauty of some of the oldest and best-preserved ancient Greek temples — at Paestum and in Segesta, both in Italy.

And while the church building was expanded over the years, none of the additions hurt the simple integrity of the original structure. The granite rustication at ground level (supporting stucco-covered brick walls) is scored to look like cut stone.

But in recent years the exterior was painted a shade of "faded Pepto-Bismol pink," as one university administrator recently called it, which didn't do the building justice.

With the recent restoration, the building's outer walls and columns have been painted four creamy hues ranging from off-white to beige. This treatment accentuates the building's major lines as well as its subtle details. Now, on sunny days, the facade glows joyously.

But the greatest pleasures can be sensed indoors with the scores of students who lounge, study, converse or sleep in the former sanctuary. Without hurting the historical fabric of the large open room, a grand, multi-use carpeted space has been established under the original dramatic ceiling.

The U-shaped balcony, the central pulpit and the vestibule that opens onto Broad Street have been retained and freshened up. The wealth of architectural features and filigree, including egg-and-dart patterning and a star-burst medallion in the center of the flat ceiling, has been quietly celebrated, not ignored. Light flows in from three sides through clear- and frosted-glass windows. Comfortable oversized contemporary furniture makes the space all the more inviting.

Along the western side of the room, the side aisle under the balcony has been partitioned with walls of clear glass to create an electronic resource center operated by the VCU library.

On the upper level, in the actual balcony, once-stepped seating areas have been converted to a flattened floor. Glass-walled individual study carrels and meeting rooms create quieter, but visually connected, breakout spaces.

Here in the balcony, as an example of the care taken with preserving the old fabric, are a number of wooden bitter-Protestant pews retained in their original settings.

The combination of a perfectly proportioned space, generous natural lighting and sensitive artificial lighting (much of which is bounced off the ceilings) creates a highly inviting environment. The stream of students filling the spaces from morning to midnight attests to the success of the space.

On the ground level, the former Campus Room restaurant has gone the way of another dining fixture on campus, Skull & Bones. In place of the Campus Room is the Campus Café, an attractive and cheerful coffee and sandwich shop serving up simple fare and furnished with light-feeling modernist furniture. Its windows look out to the north.

While the front of Hunton is marked by a high, formidable flight of granite steps and a high cast-iron fence, the rear (and now) main entrance is linked visually and physically to the newly relandscaped Patterson Memorial Garden. Outdoor and indoor meld here.

The daily existence of a medical student must be a strange one, attempting to learn and live amid the sick and the suffering. But the restored Hunton Student Center offers a warm and sophisticated sanctuary, literally, from the stresses and pressures of classes, labs and patient rounds. S

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